On her emphatic new single, “I’m Still Here,” the soul singer Sharon Jones presents her life as a series of high hurdles she has cleared with grit and grace. The lyrics detail her birth in the Jim Crow South, her childhood in “the Bronx Is Burning” New York, the years she spent rejected by record companies for being “too short, too fat, too black and too old,” and, most recently, her well-publicized battles with cancer. “I didn’t know if I’d live to see another day,” the 60-year-old singer declares in the final verse. “But I’m still here!”
In fact, she is more present than ever. In the last nine months, Ms. Jones and her well-regarded band, the Dap-Kings, have recorded two albums, opened two national tours for Hall & Oates, and been featured, along with Matthew McConaughey, in a TV car commercial for Lincoln, performing the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.” For a capper, a documentary about her life, “Miss Sharon Jones!,” opened on Friday, after making the festival circuit.
Directed by Barbara Kopple, the film chronicles aspects of the singer’s career, including her extremely rare breakthrough to stardom in her late 40s, which made her an underdog hero. With her high-power vocals growling over the Dap-Kings’ caffeinated soul, Ms. Jones channels the power of James Brown in his prime. Mainly, though, the film traces her life from a terrifying diagnosis of Stage 2 pancreatic cancer in 2013 through her triumphant return to the stage in 2015.
The celebratory tone we hear from Ms. Jones at the end of the movie contrasts with the more muted one she sometimes strikes today. Though she was energized during a face-to-face interview, a phone conversation last week found her more enervated, reflecting a hard new turn in her story.
While on tour in May, doctors found cancer cells in her stomach, lymph nodes and lungs, necessitating a fresh round of chemotherapy. On Monday in New York, Ms. Jones endured more, but in a new calibration she had requested. “One of the chemo (drugs) that they’re giving me makes the neuropathy in my feet move up my legs,” Ms. Jones said several hours after her session. “I can’t take that anymore. I need to dance onstage. I don’t want something that makes me bedridden. I want to live my life to the fullest.”
Her determination gives the documentary its lift. “I don’t think this is a maudlin film,” Ms. Kopple said. “Sharon is always up. Even when she’s in the room where people are getting chemo, she’s the sunshine.”
Originally, the documentary wasn’t going to concentrate on Ms. Jones’s illness, according to her manager, Alex Kadvan, who initiated the film. “I wanted to tell her whole musical story,” he said. “But other things happened.”
The first day of shooting, on Labor Day weekend 2013, caught a rough moment: Ms. Jones was holding her shorn braids in her hands after having her head shaved. “I’ve seen the film three times, and every time I see that scene I cry,” she said.
The early part of the film casts back to Ms. Jones’s childhood, which was rife with racial indignities. During her birth in Augusta, Ga., her mother needed a cesarean operation, but since the hospital didn’t allow African-Americans in their main units, the procedure took place in an unsanitary storage room. In the film, Ms. Jones returns to a local store she patronized as a child, where she said the owner had trained his parrot to recite a racial epithet whenever a black person entered. “It had a lot of effect on us as children,” Ms. Jones said. “You’d be afraid when you saw white people.”
After her parents divorced in the mid-60s, “I came to New York and got sassy,” Ms. Jones said with a laugh. Over the years, she sang in church and in wedding bands, while holding day jobs as a prison guard at Rikers Island and in security for Wells Fargo. “She’s got a tough attitude,” Ms. Kopple said. “I think she drew on that later.”
While major labels repeatedly shunned the singer as over the hill and “too dark,” she finally found a perfect partner, and a breakthrough, via the fledgling indie Daptone Records, which specializes in reanimating the vintage sounds of soul, funk and Latin music. In the aughts, she helped to construct the label’s studio in Bushwick. The prolific Dap-Kings have put out seven albums with Ms. Jones and backed Amy Winehouse on her album “Back to Black,” while Ms. Jones herself has been a popular choice for cameos on recordings and live shows for artists like Michael Bublé, Rufus Wainwright, David Byrne and Phish.
Central parts of the film show the financial hardships both Ms. Jones and her band underwent when they weren’t able to work during her illness. The film balances that with scenes of the star being nursed back to health in upstate New York by an acquaintance, Megan Holken, whom Ms. Jones had only connected with a few times over the years. Ms. Jones’s fiancé and Ms. Holken were friends when the women first met. “She didn’t like the way he ended it with me,” Ms. Jones said. “I must have made a real impression on her back then. She would cook and spend the whole day with me, and never did she complain.”
One of the most uplifting scenes finds Ms. Jones going to church to sing for the first time after enduring months of chemotherapy. Walking up the stairs, she’s exhausted. But the minute she starts singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” she taps a herculean strength. “The spirit came over me,” Ms. Jones said. “That was amazing.”
At a news conference for the film’s first showing at the Toronto Film Festival last September, Ms. Jones dampened things by announcing news of her cancer’s initial return. At that time, doctors found a spot on her liver (later treated with radiation). “I didn’t want people to come up and congratulate me on beating cancer when it’s back,” she said.
Similarly, the singer lets her audience at shows this year know some of what she’s going through with the cancer’s latest re-emergence. “There’s pain in my hips, and my legs feel like tons,” she said. “Getting out on that stage, that’s my therapy. You have to look at life the way it is. No one knows how long I have. But I have the strength now and I want to continue.”